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Water Accord Said to Be in Peril

Times Staff Writer

The 10-year-old accord balancing demands on the state’s most abundant source of water is in jeopardy because of new pressures that threaten to undermine fragile ecological gains in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, environmentalists warn.

At issue is a plan that would send more water to Central Valley fields and Southern California subdivisions and the effect it could have on delta wildlife, particularly salmon.

In 1991, only 211 winter-run Chinook salmon swam under the Golden Gate Bridge and returned to their historic Sacramento River spawning grounds. That perilously low number reflected the long decline of the delta, the center of not only the state’s water supply but also of some of its most intractable environmental problems.

More than a decade and many millions of dollars of restoration work later, the number of winter-run Chinook is approaching 10,000, a tenuous sign of recovery in a region that once supported millions of migrating salmon.

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But that progress could be aborted, environmentalists and some federal biologists argue, by a proposal to crank up the output at the delta’s biggest pumping operation.

Water managers want to raise by roughly a quarter the pumping limits at the Harvey O. Banks state plant. The sturdy heart of California’s giant water delivery system, Banks pulls several billion gallons of water a day from the south delta east of San Francisco and funnels it into the 444-mile-long California Aqueduct.

Growing controversy over the pumping proposal threatens to splinter support for CalFed, an ambitious decade-old government program of environmental and water supply improvements to the San Francisco Bay delta system.

Recently reauthorized by Congress, CalFed has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to undo 150 years of environmental damage to the bay and delta. But CalFed also promised water users more reservoir space and more pumping capacity.

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Revving up Banks’ herculean pumps is in that sense a major test of CalFed. Can it deliver on its many -- and perhaps conflicting -- commitments? Can Californians take more water from the delta without halting advances in fish recovery and water quality?

“Obviously, there is skepticism out there that we can pull this off,” acknowledged Patrick Wright, director of the California Bay-Delta Authority, which coordinates the CalFed program.

Nourished by runoff from the Sierra Nevada and northwest California, the delta is formed by the confluence of two of the state’s biggest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, which flow into the northern arm of San Francisco Bay.

It provides water to more than 22 million Californians and millions of acres of San Joaquin farmlands, and it sustains the state’s most important fishery habitat and the West Coast’s biggest estuary.

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Once rich with wildlife and salmon, the delta ecosystem has suffered since the Gold Rush, when it was filled with mud and gravel washed from the Sierra foothills by hydraulic mining hoses. Later, farmers built levees, draining the marshlands to plant crops. With construction of the big federal and state water projects in the mid-1900s, enormous quantities of delta water began flowing south in aqueducts to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

By the end of the 20th century, the plentiful salmon runs had virtually collapsed. Agricultural diversions had robbed the lower San Joaquin River of much of its water. The reduced flows, combined with irrigation drainage laden with natural soil salts and farm chemicals, raised salinity levels in the estuary and hurt water quality.

CalFed sought to halt the decline with a $10-billion, 30-year program. Roughly $500 million in state and federal funds has been spent so far on ecosystem restoration in the delta watershed. Dams have been removed, fish ladders and screens installed, levees set back and tons of gravel laid to create salmon spawning grounds.

The effort has yielded some results. Winter-run Chinook numbers climbed to 9,757 last year, though state estimates indicate a dip to about 9,000 this year.

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“It’s done many good things. Some of the restoration projects are beginning to show fruit,” said Bill Jennings of the environmental group DeltaKeeper.

But the program remains far short of significant environmental targets. And Jennings and other conservationists argue that more pumping will reverse the progress that has been made.

“I think the delta is facing the greatest threat it’s faced in 20 years,” Jennings said.

Water managers and government officials say the concerns are overblown. More pumping is possible without wreaking environmental havoc, they insist, and it will give the state’s massive plumbing system needed flexibility to capture more water in wet years.

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“Nobody is going to turn those pumps on 24/7,” said Tim Quinn, vice president of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the giant regional water agency that would be one of the major beneficiaries of increased delta pumping. “If it’s not working with the fishery, [we] will be out there leading the charge to change.”

The final decision on cranking up Banks rests with the state, which is conducting an environmental review.

“It’s the state’s position ... that after we do all this, we expect the fish to be better off than they have been,” said California Water Resources Director Lester Snow, noting that other steps were also planned, including the installation of south delta salinity barriers.

Nonetheless, a draft federal biological review, not publicly released but leaked to the press last month, buttressed environmentalists’ concerns. Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service last summer concluded that additional pumping, along with a proposed change in Shasta Dam operations, would harm endangered and threatened salmon runs.

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Drawing more water to Banks’ big pumps would injure more fish at the pumps, they predicted. Altered water flows would carry more salmon into the interior delta, where they would be vulnerable to predators. And important spawning habitat would be lost under a related federal proposal to shorten the stretch of the upper Sacramento on which cool temperatures must be maintained.

The resulting increased fish mortality, the biologists wrote in a draft opinion, could push to extinction the endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon and the threatened Central Valley steelhead.

But their findings were overruled by a national fisheries regional administrator in Long Beach. Two weeks ago, the agency formally released an opinion that the dam operation changes and additional pumping would do no serious harm to the fish.

Nineteen Democrats in Congress and a state Senate committee chairman cried foul at the flip-flop, noting that it was made after the fisheries agency consulted with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which supplies federal water to powerful Central Valley irrigation districts. At the lawmakers’ urging, the inspectors general of the U.S. departments of Interior and Commerce were reviewing the matter.

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Jim Lecky, the marine fisheries assistant regional administrator who oversaw the opinion rewrite, denied there was political interference and said he ordered the changes because his biologists had erred in assessing the proposal’s effects. “I don’t think it will reduce the overall [winter-run] population. I think it will allow it to continue to recover,” Lecky said.

Just how much additional water would leave the delta with more pumping is a subject of debate. Projecting future water conditions, state planners said the state and federal water projects could send an extra 200,000 acre-feet a year south to their contractors in the Central Valley and Southern California. (An acre-foot is roughly the amount that two families use in a year.)

Quinn, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California executive, said his agency believed the figure would be somewhat higher. Environmentalists argue that exports could jump by 1 million acre-feet or more a year if the higher pumping limits were met daily.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California was expected to turn increasingly to Northern California water to help offset the loss of surplus Colorado River deliveries on which it has historically depended. A severe drought in the Colorado River basin has all but eliminated the surplus. Even if the drought ends, California has agreed to gradually stop taking surplus deliveries so that other states along the Colorado can take their full share.

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Quinn said that in the future, his agency expected to get an annual average of 1.4 million acre-feet of state project water from the delta -- about what it has received since 2000 but double the average size of deliveries in the 1990s.

The federal reclamation bureau is also renewing long-term water contracts with Central Valley farmers, in most cases setting ceilings that would allow them to get more water than they’ve typically received in the past.

Add it all up, conservationists contend, and it is more than the environment can withstand.

“California and CalFed are in denial about how much water is in the system,” argued Tina Swanson, senior scientist with the Bay Institute, which monitors bay and delta conditions. “You can’t plan your life around always having average or above average amounts of water because California doesn’t do that.”

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